What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Monday, November 19, 2012

As parents, relatives, teachers, and concerned adults, we spend a great deal of our time assisting teens in circumventing the challenges that could be detrimental to their lives. One of the greatest trials teens will face is how they deal with substance abuse. We talk to them about the hazards of underage alcohol use, and the problems associated with abusing marijuana and other dangerous drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. However, teens can face dangers from within the home as well, dangers their parents may not even be aware of, in the form of prescription and over-the-counter medications. It is hard to imagine that items you may already have in your medicine cabinet can be used by teens to get high, but over-the-counter drugs, especially cough and cold medications, are becoming very popular as recreational drugs for teenagers as young as 13 to 16 years old. 

Two drug categories that require our immediate attention are prescription and over the counter medications. According to the National Council on Patient Information and Education, every day, 2,700 teens try a prescription medicine to get high for the first time. Teens are abusing these medications to get high, fall asleep, stay awake, and deal with stress; they are using these medications in the same ways their peers use alcohol, tobacco, and other narcotics to fit in and cope with their lives. Bradley County statistics indicate that with a combined average lifetime usage rate of 34 percent, prescription and OTC medications ranked 3rd among substances abused by our youth; only alcohol (43 percent) and tobacco (35 percent) use was greater. 

Meanwhile, a 2008-2009 DADAS (Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services) School Health Survey data showed that only 9 percent of our 6th graders had abused OTC medications in their lifetime. This number increased to 22 percent by 8th grade and peaked at 24 percent in 12th grade. By comparison, only 3 percent of our 6th graders had abused prescription drugs in their lifetime, but that number had increased to a disturbing 26 percent by the 12th grade. 30-day usage (those who have used a controlled substance within the last 30 days) was highest for 12th graders as well, at 15 percent. Equally disturbing are availability perceptions: 79 percent of our 6th graders stated that it would be “very hard” to obtain medication without a prescription, but by 12th grade, that number had dropped to only 28 percent.

Teens believe that because prescription and OTC medications are legal, they are safer than their illicit counterparts, making these medications the statistical (illegal) drug of choice after marijuana. Prescription drugs are also relatively easy to obtain, with 56 percent of people who use Rx medications non-medically saying they obtain these drugs from friends and relatives (NSDUH, National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2008), meaning these drugs are freely shared, or taken from medicine cabinets or other accessible places within the home. 

One of the most commonly bused OTC medications that teens are abusing is cough and cold remedies, the side effects of which is a narcotic “high” or euphoria similar to the effects of alcohol. Many of these products are widely available and can be purchased at supermarkets, drugstores, and convenience stores. Many OTC drugs that are intended to treat headaches, sinus pressure, or cold/flu symptoms contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM) and are the ones that teens are using to get high. When taken in high doses, DXM can produce the narcotic "high" that abusers crave, but it can be extremely dangerous in excessive amounts. 

DXM is not the only over-the-counter drug that teenagers are abusing. The list also includes diet pills, sleep aids, motion sickness medication, laxatives, diuretics, and emetics (chemical compounds administered to induce vomiting). Again, all of these are legal, cheap, and very easy to obtain, often without any parental oversight. While the abuse of over-the-counter ephedrine used is the making of methamphetamines has been controlled, other substances have come along to replace it as the drug of choice for a quick fix.

How do we protect the rights of those who need these medications to relieve their ailments, while also preventing their abuse? We have to sound the alarm to parents and adult caregivers, that prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications are a source of grave concern. Teens are abusing these drugs, and some are even dying because of it. Adults need to lock up their meds, keep track of their medication quantities, and learn how to properly dispose of unused medications.  

You can be a part of the solution. Talk to your teen about the risks of taking any medication without a doctor's supervision. Prescription and OTC drugs are powerful and, when abused, can be just as dangerous as street drugs.

The GRAAB Coalition is committed to educating our community on the dangers of substance abuse. In the coming weeks, GRAAB will release a comprehensive plan, which will outline our goals and strategies for addressing prescription drugs and over the counter medications abuse in our community. To be a part of the strategic planning and to learn more about the GRAAB Coalition, please contact Tanya Southerland, executive director, GRAAB Coalition at 472.472-5800 or 653-9969.

The mission of the G.R.A.A.B. Coalition is to bring together concerned members of the community and service providers to facilitate lowering the misuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs as well as other addictive behaviors in Bradley County by providing effective education, recovery, and support for youth, families, and the community.

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